Our Web Monetization (WM) project was completed on October 24, 2021. Its integration with our multi-publication digital publishing system took much longer than planned, but we found the implementation of necessary technologies - Coil, Uphold, etc. - to be straightforward and well documented.
We added the WM functionality to three websites: kingstonwire.com, shawangunkjournal.com and newsatomic.com. The readership of these sites overlaps and we expected that the transparency of the WM system would be a big benefit to them.
One of the biggest struggles we had was bridging the knowledge gap for people not familiar with setting up a web browser plug-in or app. These readers did not understand what a plug-in was, which resulted in additional time dedicated to troubleshooting the install for these readers, even after providing them with step-by-step instructions through our website and via email. They also appeared to have trouble understanding that the install was specific to a single browser. This knowledge gap appears to be potentially prohibitive for small digital newspapers that don’t have dedicated tech support staff.
Another pain point involved the news publishers. We found that readers were not spending enough time on a single article to accumulate actual revenue, which means the project would not be financially viable or attractive to other small publishers in its current iteration. After years educating our market that local journalism isn't free, our publishers could not agree to sell it for pennies. One publisher also suggested that a timed approach to monetization may disincentive people from thoroughly reading an article. Thus the problem regarding people reading only the headline and the first sentence would not be resolved by using this system.
However, readers who understood how to install plug-ins did not have a problem with installation or using WM. They found its automatic opening of articles to be simple and convenient. But although these readers recalled experiencing a relatively seamless application of the project, their read rates still did not garner any significant revenue for the publishers, even when using the most active days for reads and extrapolating that time to a full month.
One low-tech but high-interest reader had this to say about WM:
“It was an interesting web experience. After registering and getting a starter subscription, I wandered the halls of Coil. Tried Space Squid for some SF, checked out Reductress - very interesting - and that made me wonder, deeply, well deeply enough to look at Ladyspike, to see what women think. I came away wondering about smirks and what women might really think. Not being into video games - last game I played was Sim City 1996 - I moved on to Fader and music selections. Very nice. Or cool. Or some other term du jour. Could see checking them out further. I did recognize three names, and one of them was Adele. Then it was on to NewsAtomic to see how things worked reading closer to home with Coil attached. Worked fine. So good, so far.”
In all this project does not appear to be a viable web monetization system for small news outlets whose articles vary in length and complexity, and whose readers have varying degrees of technological comfort. This system may be better suited for a digital platform that has a set list of tasks that can be completed in a fixed minimum block of time, such as a video game platform.
Initially we had a goal of having a buy-in from all the third-party news publishers that currently use our NewsAtomic platform. However, after seeing the difficulty in setup and the near non-existent return on investment, we decided to keep the rollout to a smaller group, just involving Kingston Wire, Shawangunk Journal, and general use of NewsAtomic by readers.
Our second goal of having a successful implementation of the web monetization system, albeit much smaller than originally anticipated, was reached. The system worked as designed: readers easily toggled the system on to open a story and off to close it. The timer would continue ticking even when readers would click on “Related Coverage” or the next article that appears when clicking the site’s “Next” button. And with the timer still in the On position, those articles opened automatically.
Some test readers described how their reading experience was much more enjoyable and fluid using WM. Apparently, two-clicks to an article is one too many! With WM, they could swipe from article to article with no impediments.
This project was not made public due to the initial hurdles we experienced with the limited revenue and the aforementioned knowledge gap regarding browser plug-ins and apps. We engaged various groups of readers, held information meetings where we served pastries, and went over the instructions. About 50% of those folks actually went on the system.
The concept of micropayments for small outlets is a cornerstone of our mission and we are interested in continuing to pursue and refine this concept for small news outlets across the country. We still believe that, with enough time and expertise, we can solve this problem for the benefit of all independent, locally owned news outlets that are still struggling to turn a profit per story on their digital platforms. WM gave us a glimpse of a future where our readers can read seamlessly from one publication to another and provide publishers an opportunity to monetize viral stories when they are lucky enough to have one.
We do see amazing potential for this web monetization system. One that could truly save the local newsroom, with just a few modifications. If the tool allowed for more variability regarding pricing, it may have a better chance at implementation among smaller publishers. The system could vary pricing by content category instead of having one blanket price for all, like one rate for local news and another for national. Or something eventually even more granular. For example, NewsAtomic’s CMS includes content categories such as “News Short” for shorter articles, then “News” for articles with a length over 400 words, and other categories like Columns, and Op-Eds. Perhaps the system could start with a default price, like 25 cents for 30 seconds, but then allow the publisher the option to set a specific price for each of these categories. Its use still may be limited to readers who are a bit more tech savvy, but the revenue rate might be more enticing. By opting for a variable pricing model, publishers can pick and choose the WM platform that fits for them, thus earning them that extra revenue each small, independent publisher so desperately needs.